Artistic responses to persecution during the Holocaust took many forms. From theatrical performances to poems and drawings, the wide range of sources collected here reflects the diversity of Jewish experiences and reveals how some people reacted to the trauma and loss they experienced during the Holocaust.
This collection's materials range from published pieces to compositions in private notebooks and diaries. These sources include poems, songs, visual art, and theatrical performances composed and staged inside the camps. Their authors range from children and youth without formal training to professional artists and intellectuals. The persecution they faced inspired some of them to create art for the first time. Through their work, these artists found a way to grapple with the enormity of what Oyneg Shabes activist Rachel Auerbach called "the deluge of destruction."1
Although several of these sources address various aspects of daily life during the Holocaust, the artists and writers featured here provide more than a simple description of their experiences. These works reflect their creators' changing views and beliefs as they sought to make sense of the catastrophic events around them. This collection adopts a broad definition of "artistic responses to persecution," and it avoids judging or rating the artistic merit of any given piece. Instead, the collection explores a wide variety of creative responses to persecution during the Holocaust.
Many Jewish people expressed themselves artistically through language. Poetry became an important method of documentation and self-expression. Professional writers often used their talents to reflect on their experiences under Nazi persecution. For instance, a popular Polish Jewish writer named Władysław Szlengel wrote "Bread" and "Final Exams" about life in the Warsaw ghetto. Another powerful example is a poem about mass murder written by Soviet Jewish author Leyb Kvitko—"Etele." Amateur writers also used poetry to express their responses to persecution. Poems like Erzsébet Frank's "The Welders" or Nastia Kronenberg's HASAG poem document experiences of forced labor. Other poems—like "Our Cabin" by Betty Straus—capture how it felt to live in hiding.2
Music is another important form of artistic expression that offers insight into the experiences of those facing persecution during the Holocaust. Songs such as "Song of the Oppressed" added new lyrics about the brutal experiences of persecution to existing popular melodies. In a featured oral histories, survivor Gertrude Schneider recalls some of the music that people sang in ghettos during World War II. Music was also written by Jewish survivors after the war ended, such as the featured Song from Deggendorf DP Camp.3
People created different types of visual art in incredibly challenging situations—from ghettos and concentration camps to partisan camps in the woods of eastern Europe. The featured page from the wartime album of George Byfield shows how one Hungarian Jewish artist used his skills to help him survive forced labor during the war. Lutek Orenbach's sketchbook cover provides a glimpse into how art helped people communicate with one another and cope with traumatic events. Some artistic responses to horrible events were exhibited in order to shape public opinion about Nazi crimes, like Soviet Jewish soldier Zinovi Tolkachev's images from the liberation of Majdanek and Auschwitz.
Although theater was the most public form of artistic expression during and immediately after the war, dramatic productions were rarely captured or recorded. Many performances took place in ghettos, in transit and concentration camps, and in Displaced Persons camps after the war. The featured oral history with Robert Ness reveals how theatrical productions in ghettos could be meaningful events that left lasting impressions.4
Perhaps surprisingly, humor is a commonly recorded reaction to persecution during the Holocaust. Like many other authors, Samson Först used the Jewish custom of Purim plays to respond to tragedy with satire and black humor in his pamphlet, "Der Grager." Other parodies also fit into this tradition, such as Horst Rotholz's "Purim Song" and Bodo Morgenstern's activist poem, "Hitler's Dream." Such responses could break tension or relieve anxiety and depression. These kinds of sources are among the most difficult to translate outside of their original language and historical context, because humor often depends heavily on precise phrasing and knowledge of specific details.5
For some Jewish artists and authors, the intended audiences for their work included their own community. Others created art so that the non-Jewish world would preserve the memory of their work. The different examples of artistic expression in this collection show how people managed to create art in terrible circumstances. The featured sources explore how art, music, poetry, and humor helped people to preserve their humanity in the face of persecution, oppression, and genocide.